Understanding the complex nature of toxic femininity through the lens of Winter Love Island 2023

By Róisín Lanigan

Published Mar 17, 2023 at 10:36 AM

Reading time: 4 minutes

Love Island was different this year, and not just because it was the winter version or because of the fact that Maya Jama graced our screens. Usually, our experiences of watching and live hate tweeting along with the show are ones defined by bad boy behaviour: cheating, gaslighting, emotional manipulation, allegations of toxicity, and abuse. You know, the usual ‘somehow deemed acceptable for TV’ stuff.

Technically, all of those tenets of controversial yet beloved reality TV are still there in Love Island’s most recent season. It’s just that now they’re coming from the show’s female contestants. After scenes which saw Tanya Manhenga leaving Shaq Muhammad in tears when it emerged that she’d cheated on him went viral, this bad behaviour even earned a new online buzzword to lump it all together in a neat, diagnostic term: “toxic femininity.”

According to Twitter’s apoplectic feed and a seemingly endless drip of tabloid coverage of the term, toxic femininity, in this instance, has come to mean women misbehaving in a similar way to men in romantic relationships, while simultaneously claiming to celebrate ‘sisterhood’ and ‘solidarity’.

The ever-trustworthy Daily Mail recently reported that the women on the island this year were the most “manipulative and toxic” contestants in the history of the show, hyperbolically comparing the viewing experience to “being trapped in the subconscious of a sixth-former from the movie Mean Girls, whose characters are constantly engaged in psychological warfare with each other.” Male domestic abuse charity ManKind Initiative also told the tabloid that it was “monitoring the show closely.”

Although the term has re-emerged in our collective imagination thanks to Love Island, conversations surrounding so-called “toxic femininity” have been swirling on the internet far before this season aired.

One of the most notable recent examples was the trial of Johnny Depp, in which ex-wife Amber Heard was accused of weaponising her toxic femininity, and thereby becoming in the process, “the embodiment of women who lie.”

If it feels like these examples are so completely separate to the point of being incomprehensible, then therein lies the problem with today’s definition of toxic femininity. It’s a flimsy buzzword, it’s a term that can be widely applied to any and all behaviour from women we don’t like. In other words, it doesn’t actually exist.

Toxic femininity, in our current understanding of the term, does not make sense at all. The general idea of ‘toxicity’ is not a gendered one, because it too, is widely applied to all behaviour we don’t like. As a society, our extremely online tendency to pathologise behaviour, particularly in the context of romantic and sexual relationships—the concepts of things like gaslighting and emotional unavailability, for instance, while initially powerful tools in helping us identify unsafe and abusive situations, are now applied in vast swathes to our relationships—means we can just call everything and anything ‘toxic’ now.

It should be noted though, that this wasn’t always the case. Toxic femininity initially emerged as a more sensible, less adversarial way of examining how the patriarchy hurts men as well as women. In a 2018 Medium post titled Toxic Femininity Holds All of Us Back, Devon Price posits that the term is a reaction to the warped, unrelenting cultural impact of toxic masculinity.

Because masculinity was so prescriptive and oppressive, toxic femininity followed in equivalent terms. It became sexism-adjacent. Toxic femininity was eating a salad on a date, or disparaging women’s sports. Price described women who upheld these heteronormative standards though, as not evil or badly behaved, but instead as “merely misguided products of a sexist environment, and they do not deserve any of the sexism they personally receive, ever, regardless of their own [behaviour].”

Rather than apportioning blame to either men or women, the writer theorised that the problem was the inflexibility of gender roles more generally. “It was a cultural disease,” says Price. “It was nobody’s fault.” In the five years since the theory emerged as a nuanced take on the patriarchy though, the internet, as the internet is wont to do, has stamped all that nuance out.

While before ‘toxic femininity’ as a term made more sense—a way of communicating how women internalise misogyny and use it against themselves—it’s now been repackaged as a synonym for misandry instead. It’s gone from being an impetus to discuss the ridiculous archaism of gender roles to being a sensationalist tool to criticise everything from diversity, equity and inclusion programmes in the workplace (“a scam”) and (of course, send in the TERFs) to allege that gender as a social construct is nothing more than a “pet belief.” The plasticine nature of the term means it can be moulded and manipulated to suit our personal agendas.

This occurs across the political and generational spectrum. Along with right-wing tabloids, the term has also been adopted and co-opted by young women on social media. On TikTok especially, the idea of ‘toxic femininity’ thrives alongside ‘female rage’ compilations of women both real and fictional screaming into the void and instructional videos—from both women and men—on how to “play” their partners and be or “stay toxic.” It’s not a million miles away from the pseudo-ironic ‘femcelism’ that emerged on the platform around this time last year.

@redsedits_

You can see the exact moment we stop seeing in his perspective #lolita #lolita1997 #doloreshaze1997 #fyp #edit #femalerage #feminierage #90s #lionking #dominiqueswain #power

♬ Washing Machine Heart - Mitski

But even this reclamation has its limits. Although it might feel empowering to some and vindicating to others, terms like ‘toxic femininity’ are merely another way to pathologise our bad behaviour in relationships, and to deny women agency.

If we’re honest with ourselves, our visceral reaction to the bad behaviour of Love Island’s women—a show that has frequently had to wade into the muddied waters of mental health and online bullying as a result of the behaviour of its male contestants—is less to do with the behaviour itself than it is with our surprise at who’s perpetrating it.

“The Love Island girl gang may be thugs, bullies and thoroughly unpleasant people, but this is down to personality not politics,” wrote The Telegraph. This isn’t how girls are supposed to act, the backlash seems to be saying. Girls are supposed to be the ones crying, not the boys.

As Eloise Hendy wrote in The Independent last week: “In the villa and out of it, women who are angry, mean, or demeaning to others often receive more intense and lasting censure, because anger in itself is seen as an unacceptable feminine trait.”

Perhaps the problem is not toxic masculinity or so-called toxic femininity, but the sexism and power struggles inherent in heterosexual relationships. Perhaps the real problem, the real ‘toxicity’, is the adversarial, suspicious, guarded and aggressive way we view our romantic relationships as a result of the patriarchy. Although it feels simplistic to say two wrongs don’t make a right, it’s also a self-fulfilling prophecy to simply parrot bad male behaviour back and say it’s fine because they did it first.

Perhaps, then, there’s nothing new when it comes to toxic femininity, it’s just women absorbing the abuses of the patriarchy they’ve experienced already, and wielding that same poison back. And perhaps, that’s what has made the debate around Love Island feel so potent. As in previous years of the show, it feels painful and ugly to watch that struggle reflected back to us on screen.

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